Focus on the Family Broadcast

Family Dynamics During the Holidays

Family Dynamics During the Holidays

Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley answer listener questions on how to successfully navigate family relationships during the holidays, and help couples work as a team to balance chores, budgets and family demands.

Original Air Date: December 9, 2013


John Fuller: All right, so we’ve got Thanksgiving done and we turn the corner now for Christmas and New Year’s and it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be one of the most stressful times of the year because of family.


Woman: I think one of the most stressful things about the holiday season for me is just parents and relatives. It seems like everybody wants you to come to their house on the day.

End of Clips

John: You might be facing those kinds of dynamics and then when you finally do get together, there are fireworks, not the July 4th kind, but there’s tension. We’re gonna be talking about how you can manage that better on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and we’re coming back to a recorded conversation to help you through the holidays. Here’s how Jim began that discussion.

Jim Daly: John, in preparation for this program, we took a Facebook poll, which we do from time to time. And we asked the question, what family situations cause you the most stress during the holidays. And we’re gonna address some of those questions today. We did receive hundreds of (Chuckling) responses.

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: So, I know that this season–Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s–causes so much stress, particularly for wives and what is expected of them at this time.

John: Yeah, one woman told us via that Facebook poll, she said, “It doesn’t matter the situation. Family just stresses me out during the holiday[s].”

Jim: I think most people would identify with that and it shouldn’t be that way, but it tends to be that way.

John: Well, we want to get ahead of that curve. We want to be proactive and help you get a handle on all of this before you get stressed out. So, to help us do that, we have a couple of staff members, some regulars here on the broadcast, Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Greg is the vice president of Family Ministries here and Erin is part of the marriage team.


Jim: Greg and Erin, it is great to have you back and what a topic to talk about (Chuckling). Are you prepared for the holiday season?

Greg Smalley: My forehead is already beading up with sweat–

Jim: In–

Greg: –thinking about all these expectations and how we’re gonna work through them.

Jim: –in fact–

Greg: It’s not easy.

Jim: –you guys talked about this last night, didn’t you?

Erin Smalley: Yes.

Jim: Erin, did it go well?

Erin: We did. Well, actually the conversation was first–

Greg: I wasn’t there.

Erin: –between (Laughter) …

Greg: I’m sure it went–

Erin: So, it went very well.

Greg: –really well.

Jim: Erin talked about it with her parents.

Erin: No, with his mother.

Jim: Okay.

Erin: So, I had a discussion about this with my mother-in-law about–

Jim: Norma Smalley.

Erin: –the plan for the holidays.

Greg: My mommy, she loves me. (Laughter)

Jim: And how’d that conversation go?

Erin: You know what? It went really well and actually, I heard many stories about him from the holidays and somethin’ about a chipped plate.

Jim: (Chuckling) A chipped plate?

John: You had to bring that up, I guess.

Greg: (Laughter) This is one of the–

Jim: His face was blank.

Greg: –biggest problems of coming together.

Jim: Okay, well tell us [about] the chipped plate; you gotta tell us.

Greg: Apparently when I was very young, my mom inherited this china set from her mom.

Erin: Well, actually, her dad who didn’t have a lot of money, went out and bought Christmas dishes for her. And so, it was a very–

Greg: That’s even worse.

Erin: –a very big–

Jim: These were special.

Erin: –deal.

Greg: Yeah.

Erin: They were very special.

Jim: And what did little Greggy do with them?

Greg: It looked like a Frisbee; it flew like (Laughter) a Frisbee. It did not land like a Frisbee.

Jim: So, you ruined the eight-piece set and turned it into a seven-piece set.

Greg: Seven point, like seven. It was just a chip.

Jim: Yeah.

Erin: But she glued it back together with the chip in it and from that point on, every Christmas he has to use that plate.

Jim: Oh.

Greg: It’s like a–

Erin: That has been–

Greg: –reminder.

Erin: –his honor.

Jim: That caused a little bit of stress back then.

John: And it illustrates, Jim, I mean, if you’re a parent of a child who does that at say, an in-laws, I mean, goodness. There’s a lot of attendant stress with that and awkwardness and embarrassment. I mean, there really are a lot of situations here–

Jim: Well, there are.

John: –we have to deal with.

Jim: In fact, a recent study by the American Psychological Association found that women feel stressed during the holidays far more than men to (Laughing) Oh man, I’m thinkin’ of the football games on television.

John: Yeah, we just sit there–

Jim: How many guys–

John: and watch.

Jim: –the stress for them, man, do I really got to get up and get a bowl of potato chips. (Laughter)

Greg: We relax. (Laughter)

Erin: Yeah.

Greg: That’s a big decision.

Jim: That is a big decision.

Greg: To go for barbecue, sour cream and onion (Laughter), you know.

Jim: There’s so many choices of–

Greg: There is.

Jim: –potato chips today. But listen, here’s what the survey said. These were in descending order, the No. 1, No. 2, etc. causes of stress. One is lack of time. I think particularly again, there’s so much to do in that moment of getting the house ready and preparing things and kids and meals and so, lack of time was No. 1.

Lack of money, how are we gonna pay for this? We’ll talk about that in a little while, how to budget wisely for the holidays. The commercialism and the hype, that was No. 3. Pressure of giving or getting gifts. Now that’s kinda the bah-humbug spirit (Laughing), I think. I don’t want to have that pressure of having to give or get a gift.

Greg: Yeah, where’s the pressure in getting (Laughter) a gift? I’m missing something.

Jim: Well, you gotta write a thank-you note.

Greg: I’m very relaxed when people are handing me presents. I mean …

Jim: Just cascades, all the things you have to do. Family gatherings and that’s the one we really want to zero in on. And I think we should start there. Talk about that pressure. What’s going on and why can’t couples simply relax? What are the typical pressures that couples face during the holidays?

Greg: You know, you can narrow it down to one word and it really is around expectations. And expectations are, I’ve put them on myself and we’ve got family, extended family who are expecting certain things. And yet, no one’s talking about these. That is always the problem with expectations is, that oftentimes we don’t even know.

Let me give you an example of my own expectations. I think part of the problem is that people wrap this enormous amount of expectations into these family gatherings to make up for the whole rest of the year. They walk in thinking that we’re gonna have this glorious time and connect as a family. It’s gonna be great and we’ll be singing by the fireplace and it’s gonna go wonderfully, the best time of the year. And it doesn’t often work out that way because there’s so many variables that can go wrong.

Literally, we just saw this. I recognized this, this past summer. And we went on a family trip to a family camp. And instantly, I think the first morning my middle daughter and I get in this big argument. Well, it escalates to this big fight and I couldn’t figure out why am I in this huge fight with my daughter? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was because I had all these expectations of how we were just gonna be arm-in-arm as a family and–

Jim: She had other ideas.

Greg: –she had other ideas (Laughter). Or I guess the point is, that it doesn’t always work out that way. And so, the moment that our expectations start to collapse, see it creates conflict. It creates disappointment. We might shut down. So, there’s a lot going on internally, but then you’ve got all these external expectations of what our family’s wanting and hoping and expecting for.

Erin: And often, these come from how we grew up and typically, I mean, I grew up much differently than Greg as far as what we did around the holidays. And so, my expectations were very different than his. And so, then you introduce, you know, 10 other people and often those expectations clash, because nobody really is identifying what they’re expecting.

Greg: Well, she …

Erin: They’re unaware.

Jim: Right.

Greg: Well, they opened their presents Christmas Eve. And I mean, when we–

Jim: That’s awesome.

Greg: –first got married (Laughter), I couldn’t wrap my brain around that.

Jim: You had to wait.

Greg: How does Santa’s [do it]? He hadn’t gotten there yet. I mean, this happens Christmas morning. I mean, there was–

Erin: Oh, Santa came to–

Greg: –so much.

Erin: –my house on–

Greg: Yeah.

Erin: –Christmas Eve.

Jim: Yeah. That was the first stop, Greg; didn’t you know?

Greg: All right, well apparently–

Erin: Some of us–

Greg: –I didn’t–

Erin: –were higher–

Greg: –realize.

Erin: –on the list.

Jim: Erin, you know, Erin’s a good kid. (Laughter) That’s the bottom line.

Greg: Actually good, ’cause [not] that Smalley kid.

Jim: One of the things you’re saying you’re saying I want to make sure I capture it is, especially for newly married couples, it’s important to lay out the expectations. One of the biggest fights early in your relationship can be where are you going to spend Christmas? Are we gonna be with your parents or my parents? And oftentimes that first or second Christmas, you both think it’s going to be your parents and you haven’t talked about it. And it’s late into December and you realized, oh, you thought we were going there. I thought we were going over here.

Greg: Oh.

Jim: How do you do that and what should you do?

Greg: I mean, (Laughter) first and foremost, that young couple have to [sic[ realize that their marriage, their relationship is the top priority. And so, they have to go into that decision making, realizing that our marriage is top priority. We’ve got to figure out what is gonna work best for us? Because it’s very hard to please everybody, so now you’ve got all these expectations out there. And so, if you don’t have a starting point, then it can be very difficult to make the decision. And so, I think the greatest thing they can do is to sit down and actually begin to talk about it early on. And just, you know, what do we want to do? See, so–

Jim: So, it’s, agree as a couple.

Greg: –it’s gotta start here. And then you can ask you know, both sets of parents or you know, especially in this day and age of divorce, I mean, there can be four sets, you know, of parents who expect that you’re gonna show up at some point in time.

Jim: Okay, let’s play this through though. Let’s say there is some stress around this and (Chuckling) you go to your mom, the husband goes to the mom and says, “Hey, mom, we’re gonna go with Erin’s family.” And then that sorrow sets in (Chuckling) and maybe some might call it even manipulation. And she’s saying, “Well, Honey, we were counting on you bein’ with us.” (Laughing) What are you gonna–

Greg: Won’t be the–

Jim: –do?

Greg: –won’t be the same without you.

Jim: And you go home to have dinner now with wonderful Erin, your wife and you’re goin’, “Honey, we got a problem.” How do you go about untangling those emotions?

Erin: Well, first and foremost, to identify what you’re feeling as you’re coming into that conversation, but really approaching it as a team and really just realizing and embracing that we’re a team here, the two of us. We are a team and we’re gonna find something that feels good to you and good to me, a win-win in essence.

Greg: So, you’ve gotta start from that place of Genesis, that husband-wife are leaving their families of origin and cleaving to each other. That has to be the basis or this is gonna be so crazy-making. So, I think what you’re really trying to do as Erin is saying, is that you talk about it first as a couple. And then as family maybe are pushing back or, “Oh, we were hopin’ this,” that’s okay. You can say to them, “Hey, we love you and, you know, we’ll try to figure this out.” But again, you’ve got to keep making it clear and this is I think, what’s important for a young couple, who’s the decision maker? Okay, it’s Erin and I.

Jim: It’s not mom or dad.

Greg: We’re a team. I mean, and you’re not doin’ it–

Jim: Honor them.

Greg: –yeah, you’re not doin’ it in a disrespectful way, but you’ve gotta be clear. And it’s very hard for a young couple–

Jim: Oh, it is.

Greg: –in this, to be honest.

Jim: It truly is.

Greg: It’s easier as you grow older, but it still could be a challenge.

Jim: Let’s turn to the Facebook questions that we asked. One woman, Natasha made this comment. She said, “What stresses me out is getting my house ready for company and having to make the house perfect.” I think Jean stresses out with that, too.

Greg: That is so me (Laughing). You know, I worry about the–

John: You mean–

Greg: –cleanliness of our house.

John: –when Erin doesn’t clean it up, you get all stressed?

Greg: Oh. (Laughter) Never, ever.

Jim: Okay, that’s not this program.

Erin: Really, we’re gonna–

Jim: Yeah.

Erin: –set a gauge around this.

Jim: Yeah.

Greg: I’m lying.

Jim: Greg, this is an intervention.

Erin: Yeah. (Laughter)

Greg: We love you, Greg. We’re here for you.

Jim: Yeah, you gotta pick up your socks. (Laughter) But Erin, you can relate I’m sure, as we all can and what we try to do hopefully, as husbands is make sure that we’re doin’ our fair share. But how do we as couples manage this better? I think what Natasha’s saying is 95 percent of couples, they all experience this.

Erin: Absolutely and especially for a woman, there’s so much on our plate around the holiday season. I mean, it’s parties; it’s kids. It’s kids’ parties. It’s you know, family. It’s cleaning. It’s packing. You know, there’s so many–

Greg: Gift buying.

Erin: –things going on and I did notice there’s some research out that men tend to be able to relax around the holidays, because if you think (Laughter) about it, they’re off work.

Jim: Yeah.

Erin: And you know, football’s on and–

Jim: Yeah.

Erin: –just the way their brains work is that they’re able to compartmentalize. And you know, this is time off work and I can relax. Where a woman, we are constantly going back and forth in our right and left hemisphere–

Greg: Multitasking.

Erin: –and multitasking and we don’t relax.

Jim: We’re laughing about it, but there is a lot of stress around this one, because I think a woman tends to, if they haven’t worked this out and expectations aren’t agreed upon, they can get very resentful at this point, because he can be kinda dodgin’ the responsibilities there and (Laughter) he is watching–

Greg: That’s such a nice way–

Jim: –the sports.

Greg: –to put it.

Jim: Yeah. He’s watching the fourth football game of the day. Now I’m not speaking from experience here. (Laughter).

Erin: How many bags of chips are you in, Greg?

Greg: Yeah, he can have your Bronco’s–

Jim: Ah.

Greg: –his hat on right now.

Jim: Yeah, but you know, you’ve gotta disengage. How do we, Greg, as husbands clue into the fact that maybe we’ve gotta do more?

Greg: It always has to start with that willingness to anticipate that we’re both gonna have very different expectations around this. I mean, I hope you’re hearing the theme. It’s that this time of year just brings up so many undiscussed expectations. It’s gotta start with there. So, what I would encourage these couples to do is just talk about it. Hey, coming up Christmas, I could ask Erin this question. What would make this holiday season a 10 for you? What would I be doing? How could I best help you?

Jim: Oh, that’s good.

Greg: And just let her talk and hear about it. And I know one of the things that Erin often says is that, you know what? I love it when you ask me what can I do to help? But she said, it’s very different though when you take initiative and you just look around and you notice that there’s lots to do. Just jump in. Because in some ways, when I have to ask her constantly, what can I do to help? What do you need from me? It almost implies like, hey, this is really ultimately your responsibility. I’m just kinda here to help, you know. And it’s great to have that attitude, that I want to serve you. So, ask each other. But also I think for the guys, it really goes a long ways when we just look around, find things to do. Jump in and get them done. I think that really speaks love to a woman. And is that fair to say?

Erin: Yes. And what I love that we’ve done in the past is to come up with a game plan, you know, that you’re … it’s so often Greg will, you know, buy for you know, our son, Garrison and Murphy and I’ll take Taylor and Annie. And so, it’s a game plan that we divide it up and we conquer. It’s not that, you know, he’s coming alongside and helping. It’s that he is gettin’ in the game and that we’re doin’ this as a team. We’re gonna conquer Christmas, the holidays together.

Greg: I mean, what 16-year-old girl wouldn’t want a new war videogame, you know?

Jim: (Chuckling) I was gonna say, do you agree on the gifts ahead of time?

Erin: Yes.

Jim: A package of suckers? (Laughing)

Erin: Yeah.

Erin: We actually, we do, because–

Greg: We do.

Erin: –we come up with a budget and we–

Jim: Yeah.

Erin: –plan.

Jim: Defin[itely].

Erin: And really, that way the expectations are out on the table. You know, this is what I’m expecting you to look for. This is what she’s wanting. We get lists from the kids.

Greg: It’s easy; then I’ve got my list and I go out. She does two; I do two and then we buy for each other–

Jim: Well–

Greg: –and we’re done.

Jim: –let’s move to that. I mean, budget can be the next real pain for the couple, because one has overspent. And again, you’re right back into the argument and disagreement about, what did you do? And how do they go about taking care of that?

Greg: You know, some of the challenge is, that I think people again, remember they wrap so many expectations within this time of year and gift giving can be one of them as a way to show that we’ve got money, as a way to show that I can provide for my family. And so many people who go into debt sort of as a way to kinda make up, you know, for the year. That’s the worst way to go into buying presents. And I think that you mitigate that. You lessen the chances of making poor financial decisions by simply talking about it and just say, looking at our budget, how much can we spend this year? And that’s gonna change from year to year.

So, Erin and I, we agree and then we come up with an amount and then we divide that out. And then we just go do it. And funny though, what I always notice, I’m the worst at sticking to that. I’m tellin’ you, I love when I’m goin’ in and I’m seein’ my kids are wanting certain things. Ah, as a dad, I just want to feel like I really can provide for them.

Jim: So, you’re more spontaneous–

Greg: I can, but–

Jim: –in your purchasing.

Greg: –but again, do you see that’s motivated not necessarily from a great spot.

Jim: Right.

Greg: That tends to then be about me and wanting to make myself feel like I can provide and I’m a good dad and they’ll see that I gave more presents than mom. And so, you know. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. But you know what I’m saying? I mean, so just be very careful. That’s why we’ve gotta keep talking this thing through. And again, if you’re not catching this theme, you’ve got all these expectations. The only way to deal with those, you’ve got to put them out there so that you as a couple first and foremost, can talk through it. If you follow that, you can decide and make any of these decisions, from which house are we going to for Thanksgiving and Christmas, to how many presents we’re making? It’s really gotta start from the communication, that we’re a team and we recognize that.

Program Note:

John: Dr. Greg Smalley and his wife, Erin on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly and we’ve got a great resource for you. It’s free. It’s called Helpful Hints for Holiday Struggles and it provides tips on dealing with all those family dynamics that happen when you get together. You’ll find that and ways to donate to this ministry at Let’s go ahead and continue the conversation. Greg and Erin discuss how to talk with your spouse about potential difficulties with extended family, especially when there’s been some resentment in the past.

End of Program Note

Erin: You know, when you look back over the years, you know, even if you’ve been married for two years, you have one year of experience. Where were the triggers? Where were the stress points that you dealt with during the holiday season prior to that? And really what I loved, Greg has been so wonderful with, you know, asking me what do you need? I noticed that sometimes there’s tension between you and this other family member. What do you need from me? How can I support you? How can I come alongside of you and really protect you as your husband? And you know, and making … just coming up with a plan of how to best do that.

Greg: You know, let me frame why this is so important. Okay, here’s the problem. When we go back to visit family, to be around family, it will inevitably pull you back into those roles that you played as you were growing up. I don’t care how old you are. I mean, here as a psychologist, you know, I help people deal with these things. And I’ll go home and I’m (Sound of Pfft); I’m right back in.

Jim: You’re the child once again.

Erin: You’re 12-years-old.

Greg: Exactly and see, the problem when that happens and now we’re doing these crazy things that Erin, she’s not used to watching me do these things, behaving this way. And so, it can really lead to conflict between us. I mean, one of the biggest fights that we ever got into was during one of those holidays times, to where we were with my family and somethin’ happened. And I was actin’ weird. She needed somethin’. And boom! We just were in this huge, huge argument.

And I’m tellin’ you, that had everything to do with the fact that I was already in that weird kinda just reliving all this childhood stuff and just realize that that’s gonna happen and just expect it, because then that’s a part of then what you can talk about to go. Okay, Erin gets really, really quiet when she’s around–

Jim: That’s what I do.

Greg: –family.

Erin: Yeah.

Jim: That’s the same–

Greg: And I’m so not–

Jim: –that I [do].

Greg: –used to that and I just sit there and I’m baffled. I mean, she’s just (Sound of woomf), you know.

Jim: It’s safe there. I mean, that’s a safe place to be.

Greg: It’s her happy place.

Jim: Erin, I can identify with you.

Erin: You know what’s funny is, we were family the other day and it was the kids and us and then some extended family members. And I got a text on my phone. I’m like, hm. So, I look at it and it’s my daughter who’s sitting right next to me. And she literally said, “Why are you acting like that?” (Laughter)

Jim: It’s that obvious.

Erin: It was that obvious. And I literally (Laughing), because often we walk back into our family system, we don’t realize that we take on those roles that we carried, you know, all the first 18 years of growing up in our family of origin.

Greg: And I think that’s why her point is so important, that as we’re driving there, as we’re flying there, at some point it is so worthwhile for us as a couple just to say okay, hey, with this particular family member, this kinda can happen. What’s the game plan? And I love in 1 Corinthians 1:10, it says, “I appeal to you brothers that all of you agree with one another, so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” That should be the goal for every couple as they’re heading to a family gathering. How are we going to stay united? How are we gonna stay as a team? How do you need me to support you? If you talk about that, see you get then all those expectations out in the open and that’s how you make this experience successful.

Jim: And it should be fun. I mean, that’s the goal at this time of year, is to have a good time and remember the, you know, the meaning of the season, that God sent His Son to die for us. And this is what we celebrate at Christmas, is His birth. So, we shouldn’t give it to the enemy, if I could so blunt, that–

Greg: Good way to put it.

Jim: –all this conflict and all this pressure is creating a nastiness in us. It’s an irony that at that hopeful time of year, we would take on the opposite attitude, especially in our relationships. Greg, you talked about a Scripture; Philippians 2:4 is another one. I want to replace a word in here to make the point, but it’s …

Greg: You’re rewriting Scripture?

Jim: (Laughing) No.

Greg: Wow.

Jim: But “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of [your family members] (Chuckling).” Ouch! That can be really hard.

Greg: It can, but even notice though the order. So don’t look not only to your own interests,” so I take that as, okay, figure out what’s goin’ on for you. Figure out what you need first and foremost. Keep your heart open. Keep things light. Keep things fun. So, figure that out. But then, turn and look to the interests of you [and your spouse], then your family. And I like that, ’cause that is so possible. Christ came [for] what? To serve, not to be served. And so, what if that was our attitude?

So, as Erin and I talk, we get some expectations out. We have a game plan on how we can support one another, but then let the conversation turn to, so then as we’re at this gathering, how could we out serve each family member?

Jim: How could we let the Lord shine through us–

Greg: Yeah.

Erin: Hm.

Jim: –even in family situations.

Greg: The … listen to this one, Proverbs 11:25: “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched.” So, in other words, that’s that heart. I want to serve. I want to bring blessing. But I’m telling you, you will not get there if you don’t intentionally talk how to prepare hearts and minds, unified as a couple. What do I need as an individual? If you do that work beforehand, you’ll stay in that open spot to be able to serve and to bless.

Jim: Greg and Erin, we touched on this or alluded to it, but in this day and age, of course, there’s so much divorce. Apply this now to that environment. I can only imagine the greater amount of stress that’s involved there. And I would like to extend some hope to those folks, as well.

Greg: You know, first and foremost, you cannot please everybody. That is impossible. If you’re talking about four sets of families, four sets of different family groups vying for your time, your attention, there’s just no way you can do all of that. So, again, you’ve got to step back, figure out what is the very best for our family and then try to then serve and do your very best. But the only way you’re gonna figure out what everybody else needs is

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